WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Bill Herdahl is asked how many times he’s flown on a plane, he responds with an old U.S. Army Airborne joke.
“I tell them I took off a lot of times, but I never landed,” said the Vietnam War-era veteran from Cedar Falls.
Herdahl left his parachute at home Tuesday and joined 100 other local military veterans who touched down in the nation’s capital to tour memorials dedicated in their honor as part of the 21st Cedar Valley Honor Flight.
The veterans received a hero’s welcome at the Waterloo Regional Airport, including an American flag flying from a Waterloo Fire Rescue ladder truck, and were greeted at Baltimore-Washington International Airport by a pumper truck water salute.
Navy veteran J.B. Bartling, who served in Korea, was looking forward to the tour, which included stops at the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other monuments.
“Of all the world capitals I’ve been in, I’ve never been to my own,” said Bartling, who operated a number of restaurants in the Cedar Valley before moving to the Western Home Communities in Cedar Falls.
Bartling’s guardian for the day was Western Home nurse Alex Jamieson, who served eight years in the U.S. Army, including time in Afghanistan.
With about 80 percent of the Honor Flight participants serving in the Vietnam era, the stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall proved to be an emotional event.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Daryl Newell, a U.S. Navy veteran. He had a “River Rat” tattoo on his arm as he ran his finger along the engraved names. Newell lost nine friends in the war, including his best friend.
Terry Haren of Grundy Center was looking for one name, his friend Richard Westberg, who he knew in Marshalltown. Haren served on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in Vietnam, but decided to visit Westberg when he was home on leave.
“I was at a stoplight about half a block from his house when I heard on KFJB (Radio) that Dick Westberg got killed in Vietnam,” Haren said. “I didn’t even know he enlisted in the Army.
“The next thing I remember, I was driving into the Marshalltown High School parking lot,” he added. “I didn’t know how I got there, but I sat there awhile.”
Richard Welsh, a Navy veteran, decided not to look for names of those he knew.
“There’s a lot of guys I went to school with on there, a lot of guys I went to basic training at AIT (Advanced Individual Training) with,” Welsh said. “I can’t help but feel for all the guys’ lives that were lost and all the families that were messed up.
“All vets should see it once,” he added.
Henry Shepard, a U.S. Navy veteran from La Porte City, also was impacted by the size of the wall.
“It’s definitely moving just to see the names, the number of the names,” Shepard said. “It makes it real about how many we lost.”
Craig White, a Black Hawk County supervisor and one of the original founders of the Cedar Valley Honor Flight program seven years ago, laid four red roses and five yellow roses at the wall in honor of the 45 Black Hawk County residents killed in the Vietnam War.
The Honor Flight buses made a new stop this year at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Five female veterans participated in the trip this year, compared to just a couple from the previous 20 honor flights combined.
Elaine Amundson, who served as an officer at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, was enjoying the trip.
“I thought it would be great to be with other people who served during that era and hear some of their stories, especially hearing from the other women and their stories,” Amundson said. “Once you’ve been in the military there’s a camaraderie you have.”
Denise Rogers of Waterloo, who served as a Navy nurse during the Vietnam era, found a bronze plaque near the Vietnam Memorial.
“It was dedicated to the nurses that had served during the Vietnam era,” she said. “I just found that really meaningful.”
Gen. David Cole, who previously lived in Waterloo, greeted the Honor Flight veterans at the World War II Memorial and was amazed at the outpouring of financial support the community provides for the flights.
“When you look at the amount of money it takes and realize the community funds it, I wouldn’t be anywhere else today,” Cole said. “This is the 21st Honor Flight, and I’ve been to every one of them.”
A rainstorm put a damper on the late afternoon photo opportunity at the Air Force Memorial, but the Cedar Valley made sure to cap off the trip on the right foot.
The Waterloo airport terminal was packed when the veterans deplaned. Members of the crowd shook hands with the veterans and cheered as they made their way through the terminal.
The trip was one of three Sullivan-Hartogh-Davis Honor Flights scheduled in 2018.